The Washington Wizards have had their eyes on Deni Avdija since he was 16, with club officials traveling the world to watch the Israeli teenager play.
“(Sheppard) was so fired up,” coach Scott Brooks said. “I thought he was going to be like Carl Lewis and run a 100 in 9.3.”
Sheppard wasn’t the only one excited. ESPN’s Mike Schmitz hailed the selection as the “steal of the draft” as soon as it happened. Speaking from Israel, Advija called his selection “amazing” and said he couldn’t wait to take his game to the NBA.
But while the Israeli forward has been on the radar for basketball insiders for quite some time — he’s probably an unknown for many Wizards fans.
Here’s what you need to know about him, and why he could be worth the hype:
⦁ He’s a versatile playmaker with size: Let’s get the scouting report out of the way early. At 6-foot-9, Avdija can handle the ball and make plays for teammates. Brooks said he loved Avdija‘s toughness, his ability to attack the basket with force. As a star for Maccabi Tel Aviv, Avdija has experience going against much older players — both in the Israeli Premier League and the EuroLeague, the latter which is regarded to be the most-talented league outside the NBA.
“As a coach, you never want to have to worry about a guy playing hard,” Brooks said. “You don’t want to coach that. You don’t want to talk about it. And with this kid, that’s what he does. He steps on the court and competes. He’s going to make our practices better, he’s going to make our games better.”
⦁ At No. 9, Advija is the highest-drafted Israeli player ever:Avdija is only the second Israeli to be drafted in the first round — and he was picked higher than Omri Casspi, who went 23rd overall to the Sacramento Kings in 2009. Avdija and Casspi know each other well as the 19-year-old said Casspi was a mentor.
Speaking to reporters after being drafted, Avdija said he was honored to be the highest-selected player from Israel.
“That was crazy for me,” Avdija said. “Israel is such a small country that doesn’t provide as many NBA players as other countries. But for me just to represent my country and to make history, that’s a blessing. I have the whole nation behind me. I hope I’m gonna represent well. I didn’t think about this moment. I’m thinking it’s still a dream. So, I don’t have any words.”
⦁ He was the MVP of the Israeli league: While Avdija didn’t light it up in the EuroLeague this past season — he averaged just four points per game off the bench playing in Serbia — he was a star in the Israeli Premier League.
He was the youngest player in the league’s history to be named MVP. He averaged 13.5 points and 6.1 rebounds per game as he helped lead Maccabi to a championship.
“He checked all of our boxes,” Sheppard said. “You try not to really keep looking at the board when he’s still on there, and they get to 6, 7, you don’t really wanna — you just don’t wanna get too excited. It’s like talking about a no-hitter in the seventh inning. We kinda got an idea at 8 what they were gonna do, and certainly, it was a no-brainer for us.”
⦁ Avdija learned how to speak English from “Call of Duty”: OK, so this one won’t impact wins or losses, but it’s still fascinating. Avdija told ESPN he learned how to speak English from the popular war video game “Call of Duty.”
And if you’ve ever played that game against other people online, you know the vocabulary there is … well, let’s just say it’s not the kind of English-as-a-second-language they’re teaching down at the community college.
⦁ Basketball in his blood:Avdija has been around basketball his whole life. His father, Zufer, played around Europe for two decades — spending time in Yugoslavia and Israeli. He played with multiple clubs, starting his career in 1977 and ending it in 1998.
“He’s got great basketball bloodlines since his father was a legend in Serbia, red star,” Sheppard said. “Can’t say enough about his pedigree certainly, but his character, his work ethic. What we really hold dear here is that competitive gene.”
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